I’m driving down the winding road that follows the ocean’s edge, past the lawn tennis club that sits next to the Quw’utsun longhouse, right where the town edges up onto the reserve and where the rivers spider out to meet the ocean. There is a small cemetery up on a hillside in front of a long-standing Catholic church, worn on the edges by the weather. The church, buttressed by a mountain behind it and the local Quw’utsun reservation on every other side, is beside the building where they used to take Indigenous children to be ‘schooled’ by the nuns. They don’t advertise that part anymore, but the land and the people remember.
As I drive by, a man – kneeling – holds a big bouquet of bright, yellow flowers in one hand. I remember because they cut so vividly against the grey, cloudy skies. With the other hand, he picked up a simple, dilapidated white cross that had fallen over. It was a moment, and then my car pushed me past and into the next suburban neighborhood. I don’t know what happened next.
There’s so much history here, so many stories pushed into the next. But, this story begins here: this is Indigenous land. Of that I’m certain, so I choose to begin begin with this foundation.
The cave with the ancient shell midden that I found in the forest confirms this: there are thousands and thousands of years of history and occupation here. From ancient fish weirs to shellfish harvesting to drawings on the rocks, evidence of their lives, histories, and their foods exist – if you’re willing to see it. This place fed and protected the Quw’utsun since the time that Stutsun fell from the sky.
Back down along that winding road, there’s also a small stone monument commemorating the first settlers who arrived in the bay, accompanied by a gunboat and the backing of the largest colonial empire in the world. They snuck in, scared and knowing that they weren’t welcome. They took what they could and eventually almost took it all. The settlers and their families are still here.
I’m here too, for now. The land I currently live on was first settled by Rodger Douglas in 1889, a keeper of the Sand Heads lighthouse, built on a tower in the mouth of the Fraser River, a tower built at the bequest of ships ferrying those to the gold rush. He guided settlers into British Columbia, settlers intent on taking what they could for their own gain. Eventually, they almost took it all.
The land I currently live on, from Kilpahlas (to the West) to what is now called Cherry Point (to the East), was also prime shellfish habitat and harvesting grounds for the Quw’utsun. Rachel Flowers, a Coast Salish scholar, writes, “Hwuhwilmuhw [Salish people] have a responsibility to respect the land and achieve balance with both the natural order and social life… This relationship with the natural world is recognized and demonstrated through food. When we collect food, we acknowledge the exchange that is taking place…we have responsibilities and obligations based on reciprocity and respect; in this way our food is xe’xe’, sacred… Power flows from the land, to the people. The wealth of the land feeds the people.” This place where I am now living is a powerful place, a sacred place. A place where food was harvested in abundance is indeed a powerful place.
The other day, I walked myself down to the ocean, winding my way down the steep banks. At the end of the trail, right where the forest gives way to the wide open water, there was a large sign posted: Danger! Shellfish area closed because of contamination.
I am telling you these stories in English, but this language cannot contain or express everything there is to say about the history of this place. English doesn’t have the right words to convey the meaning and feeling of these stories; I can only tell you my own story.
I’m not an uninvited guest on these Indigenous lands; there’s no such thing. We don’t call people who walk into your home uninvited – and then refuse to leave or respect your place – ‘guests’. That’s a sleight of tongue to avoid more controversial stances. I’m a settler in this place, now. Despite the fact my grandparents arrived in Canada on different boats and despite how I might struggle to rectify and refuse the violences, I am a settler here.
Other settlers are here too. It’s an area where oversized pickup trucks with extra clearance for no good reason sit side by side with the newest electric cars in the soccer field parking lot. It’s a place where one day you might drive down the highway and placards decorate the side of the road declaring “Save the Ancient Trees!” and the next week a banner drops from the overpass declaring, “Hug Jobs Not Trees” and “All Logging Lives Matter”.
Semi-communes and experimental small farms grow vegetables on plots next to wealthy investors’ second or third homes, next to trailer parks housing elderly folks who were born and raised here and haven’t left the Island for decades.
There is a sense of pride in this place, in the natural beauty, despite the hundred plus years of settlers trying to destroy it. Decals dot the backs of cars, outlines of the island and maybe a sitka spruce or a wave or a mountain, too. Never the logging roads that zig and zag like patchwork, ripping through the mountains and valleys alike. Never a stump of an ancient tree, felled for profit. I’ve hiked these mountains, both the beautiful ones and the ravaged ones; they’re both there, sometimes two sides to the same mountain.
This is a land of abundance but much of that abundance has been destroyed or contaminated or replaced with weak facsimiles of what was once here. They’ve, indeed, paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Or, as someone recently suggested in my community’s Facebook group, maybe we can solve the community’s continued need for more parking spots by building more parking on the reserve, down by the sacred spot where they used to harvest shellfish….
I hike up the mountain behind the church, the one that stands like a sentinel over the bay and that winding road, the mountain named by settlers after a famous Quw’utsun warrior (Ts’uwxilum) but whose much older name is Pi’paam. At the top, a large steel cross had been erected. The cross had a long, complicated history and, not for the first time, someone had decided that it was better off not standing. All that was left was a metal stump.
I’m still learning: Learning to love this place, learning to see this place for what it is and also what it could be. I’m learning the stories and learning my part in them.
This isn’t a land acknowledgement in the typical sense. There’s no proclamation of reconciliation because I’m pretty sure that’s not the answer. There are no easy answers, and no formulas: you can’t copy and paste this acknowledgement because it’s my story. You have to find your own story, your own relationship to the land and the people.
I do believe the answers begin with the land though, this place that so many call home, some for longer than others. Maybe it’s easier to hold this home loosely when I’ve been here for such a short time but that also means it makes sense to me why some who have been here for thousands upon thousands of years, whose families have lived and thrived from its abundance, hold the land so tightly.
I believe that land should be returned to those who have held it so tightly and carefully for so long. This is Indigenous land; it is Quw’utsun land. Saying this, as controversial as it is, is not enough. Building futures of abundance, for all of us, includes returning land to Indigenous peoples. Let’s get building.